Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Sovereign Debt Crisis and the Nuclear Green MSR Plan

Believe it or not when in 2007, I worked out the plan that lies behind all of my work on nuclear Green, I included the possibility that the United States would not be able to pay off its sovereign debt during a period of time when national goals included replacement of fossil fuel energy sources with post carbon energy sources. I assumed that new energy sources would have to be low cost tp build, and low cost to operate. In 2007 when I first attempted to think and talk through the future of American energy, I realized that the international financial situation of the United States was a precarious, and that any energy solution that was likely to work, would, at the very least, not raise energy costs. Yet in order to adopt a renewable energy approach, to fossil fuel replacement we would either be forced to build a large number of redundant renewable energy facilities, in order to provide 24 hour a day energy sources, and greatly expand the electrical transmission grid. Redundancy and expanded transmission facilities were, however not the only added expense required to make a renewable dominated grid reliable. A very large back up energy storage system would also be required. This made a future American renewablees dominated energy system very expensive, and probably not affordable, given the economic situation of the United States.

Renewables advocates suggested that energy efficiency and the continued use of fossil fuel energy backup systems backups could bridge the gap between energy supply and energy demand. But the united states government has carried on programs to encourage greater energy efficiency since the 1970's. And while these programs have meet with some success, they have not succeeded in dramatically lowering American energy demands. Much of the decline in energy United States demands during the last 30 years can be attributed to the shift of energy intense industries off shore. Energy that was once required to produce American consumed goods, is now produced off shore. Moving America manufacture to other countries may make the United States economy look more energy efficient on paper, but it does not reduce global energy demand, nor does it solve the long term problems of the American economy.

Planning for continued use of fossil fuels as an alternative to nuclear power is stupid and self defeating. Climate scientists tell us that we need to reduce global fossil fuel consumption by 80% by 2050 to avoid a drastic climate shift. Yet German Greens prefer building new coal and gas fired power plamys, to continued use of German nuclear plants. Given the problems that an 80% carbon reduction involves, continued use of fossil fuels in electrical generation may not be an option. In addition the emerging economies of India and China require very large amount's of energy, and the prospect of seeing nations such Brazil, Mexico Nigeria, Indonesia and other nations, whose economic development is expected to expand during the next 40 years. We should not expect that any energy required to power newly emerging economic activities will come from from fossil fuels. Nor can we expect renewable energy and efficiency to bridge the energy gap.

Thus leaves us with no option other than nuclear energy if we are to avoid unacceptable emission levels of carbon-dioxide. But what of the complaints that are often made against nuclear energy. I was told when I proposed the nuclear solution in 2007, that the use of nuclear power
* Was not safe and that accidents at nuclear power plants could kill thousands of people
* Produced deadly toxin waste that would be deadly for millions of years
* Lead to nuclear proliferation, and the the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists
* And at any rate was too expensive
* Plus we are running out of nuclear fuel.
I have explored akk of these problems extensively on Nuclear Green. Others including bloggers Kirk Sorensen, Barry Brook, NNadir, and Rod Adams have also offered extensive explorations of these issues. None of these problems seemed unsolvable to me, although I quickly noted that many nuclear power critics seemed singularly uninterested discussing solutions. It also struck me that the critics of nuclear power seemed to exaggerate their complaints. For example, the deadly for million years complaints, might refer to a relatively small amount of actinites from uranium fuel cycle reactors, but it is quite possible to eliminate the production of transuranium elements from Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors almost completrely, and to burn the remining TRUs completely over time. The remaining fission products produced by liftors would be no more radioactive than natural uranium ore after 300 years. There are billions of tons of uranium ore burried in the earth, and it does not seem to be killing people. Thus the dangerous for millions of years claim seems to be a huge exageration.

Much of my knowledge of the nuclear option stems from the fact that my father had worked for nearly 30 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He had made a major contribution to the development of what is today the main stream reactor technology, the Light Water Reactor. He received exactly one dollar from the United States Government for the patent of his discovery, which is used in practically every civilian and military reactor in the world today.

Oak Ridge scientists, including my father, had believed that it would be possible to design and build a far better reactor than the Light Water Reactor which they developed during the 1940's.

After reviewing what scientists had written about nuclear power technology, I came to the conclusion that reactors were not unsafe by any reasonable standard, that nuclear waste did not constitute anything like the hazard that nuclear critics claimed, that civilian nuclear power plants are not useful tools for the development of nuclear weapons, that historically civilian nuclear power had not lead to nations acquiring nuclear weapons, and infacts most nations that had acquired nuclear weapons, had first done so without first developing civilian power reactors, and that almost all nations that built civilian nuclear power plants before acquiring nuclear weapons, had not gone on to acquire nuclear weapons. Thus the evidence from history is that there is at worst only a association between the prior acquisition of civilian nuclear plants, and the aquisition of nuclear weapons proceeds the acqusition of nuclear powered generating plants.

It has proven quite possible for even underdeveloped nations that lack civilian nuclear power facilities, to develop advanced nuclear weapons programs and even develop and test nuclear weapons, and that countries that acquire nuclear weapons in disregard to international treaties, almost always acquire nuclear weapons before rather after they acquire civilian nuclear power. Further nations that acquire civilian nuclear power technology first almost never go on to acquire nuclear weapons.

The traditional arguments against the use of nuclear power offer a very weak case against nuclear power, and the urgency of our need for fossil fuel replacement. Objective evaluations have repeatedly concluded that renewables and efficiency are ineffective substitutes for fossil fuels and will cost far more than nuclear power.

Based on United States Energy Information Agency estimates, Collell argues that the business as ususl approach to new electrical generation facilities would not work with the French nuclear generation model. But then of course, the French did not follow a business as usual model when they developed their nuclear electrical generation facilities.

In fact, the French model is to not rely very much on renewable energy, but we will allow Senior Collell latitude in making his point. He describes the French Model

One of the first options to consider would be to follow the French model and gradually increase the number of reactors to produce a good deal of the world’s electricity by 2030 or perhaps a little later. This would take the pressure off fossil fuels and, in principle, would not require technical innovations of any kind. Electricity would be produced emission-free, based either on nuclear or renewable sources. This would save enormous amounts of natural gas and coal, as well as considerable oil, thus reducing emissions and perhaps putting downward pressure on fossil fuel prices (or at least keeping them steady), while making non-renewable fuel available for a longer period.
But is the French model to gradually increase the number of reactors, Or did the French embark on a crash reactor building program during the 1970's and 80's? Historians say that the French embarked on a deliberate, reactor crash building program.

Senior Collell then suggests that in order to follow the nuclear French model by 2030,

4,740 new 1GWe reactors would have to be built and [one] put in operation every two days for the next 25 years.

Senior Collell then offers a reflection on the difficulty of this task in a business as usual world.
An optimistic estimate of construction times (five years) would mean having 950 teams of technical specialists, workers and machinery simultaneously working full time. This is hard to imagine, despite talk of standardising designs. In the previous period of nuclear construction (1963-88) only 423 reactors were built, at a rate of 17 per year.
He also argues that fuel shortages would constrict the depolyment of such a large reactor fleet.

A simple calculation suffices to show how an extension of the French model would collide with a scarcity of uranium. This is old news, given the serious doubts that already exist regarding the availability of uranium even to feed a few more reactors than now exist. In 2004, 365 GWe of nuclear capacity consumed about 67 kt of uranium (approximately 180 tons of uranium per GWe per year), of which 36 kt came from currently operating mines, while the rest came from recycled nuclear weapons and other secondary sources (that is, from prior production). Supply forecasts for the reactors currently in operation (plus foreseeable growth) put uranium mining production at 50 kt per year in 2015, with a significant shortfall developing in 2010, by which time Russia's nuclear weapons will have been dismantled and their uranium will have been consumed, . . .
If we assume linear growth from the current 365 GWe to 4,959 GWe in 2030, uranium demand would be around 400 kt in 2015 and 700 kt in 2030. This means multiplying by eight today’s estimates of production capacity in 2015, and multiplying by fifteen for 2030.
In fact, scientists have been forcasting a uranium shortage for a long time, and so far it has not happened. Nuclear Green has reviewed the evidence that vast amounts of recoverable uranium and thorium are avaliable in the earth's crust. Infact enough recoverable nuclear fuel is avaliable to make nuclear power for all practical purposes a sustainable resource. This has been known for a long time.

Alvin Weinberg recored,
“At the April 28, 1944, meeting of the New Piles Committee, Phil Morrison had reported the known reserves of uranium at workable concentration to amount to only about 20 000 tons. With so little fuel, nuclear energy based only on the 0.7 per- cent of uranium-235 in natural uranium could hardly amount to much. Morrison also pointed out at this meeting that the vastly larger amount of residual uranium in the granites could be burned with a positive energy balance—but only if used in a breeder.”
According to Weinberg, Morrison added that
more work should be done on the nuclear development of thorium because of its greater availabil- ity and also suggested experiments, . . .
Weinberg records Morrison's excitement when,
Morrison showed me his calculations . . .
What Morrison demonstrated to Weinberg was that,
if uranium (was) burned in a breeder (reactor), the energy released through fission exceeded the energy required to extract the residual 4 ppm of uranium from granitic rocks.
Despite the long standing evidence of science Senior Collell insists we will quickly run out of nuclear fuel.

Senior Collell sees these facts as casting the nuclear build out on the horns of a dilemma.
Let us suppose, however, for argument’s sake, that it were possible to achieve a production capacity of 700 kt/year by 2030. In the context of this analysis, two questions are raised: first, the CO2 emissions that would be generated in this phase of the nuclear cycle. Given the amount of uranium necessary, it would almost certainly be necessary to make use of hard rock deposits and low concentrations.
There are fortunately multiple flaws in this argument. First the rock does not have to be moved in order to be mined. Low energy mineral recovery technologies are avaliable to miners. Uranium miners are increasingly adopting a mining technique called in situ leaching. When in situ leaching is practiced on uranium ore, the primarily the uranium is extracted, and the rock is left in place. Thus contrary to Senior Collell, a low energy technology is avaliable that would permit the recovery of a huge amount of uranium with a favorable energy return for energy invested.

The problem that Senior Collell is pointing to is the limitation of the Light Water Reactor. Light Water Reactors were first developed as a means of powering American Nuclear submarines. In American Nuclear Submarines LWRs are small, they provide reliable power for 15 years, after which their cores can be replaced. Submarine reactors are expensive, but nothing can serve as a substitute . Large power reactors can be even more expensive and they are very fuel inefficient. Part of the problem has to do with the flaws in the Uranium cycle. In LWRs as little as 0.3% of the potential fuel gets burned, and the rest falls into a category called "nuclear waste." The problem is that uranium is relatively cheap, so it cost less to seperate out the good stuff, the U-235 and use it for nuclear fuel. A tiny fraction of the 95% to 97% of the fuel gets converted to fissionable Pu239, and a fraction of that gets burned as nuclear fuel. Unfortunately Pu-239 is not very good fuel in LWRs.

French Scientists from the University of Grenoble are aware of the problem. In "Scenarios with an Intensive Contribution of Nuclear Energy to the World Energy Supply," H.Nifenecker, D.Heuer, S.David, J.M.Loiseaux1, J.M.Martin, O.Meplan, and A.Nuttin, maintain that
If carried out with PWR or BWR reactors, the important nuclear power deployment will make heavy demands on natural Uranium resources. Resources are, presently, estimated to be around 20 Million tons. Assuming PWR or BWR reactors, the cumulative needs in 2050 could reach 16 million tons. This shows that breeding reactors are necessary to meet the needs or, alternately, that Uranium would have to be extracted from sea water, at a significant cost.
These considerations may, however, probably exaggerate the Uranium shortage. Certainly when the huge global thorium stock is added to recoverable uranium there will be no shortage of nuclear for a long time to come. Alvin Weinberg relates how the possibility of a future global uranium shortage was understood by the founding fathers of the Nuclear age, including Enrico Fermi, and Eugene Wigner.

At any rate I am not going to contend with the not enough uranium argument. Even if there is enough uranium, the French analysis is fairly sound for other reasons, which I have pointed out on Nuclear Green. In "Intensive Contribution," the French team reviewed two possible breeding cycles:
* The U-Pu cycle using fast reactors
* The Th-U cycle using thermal reactors
This analysis was expanded with typical French thoroughness in "worldwide deployment," if anyone is interested. Both "Intensive Contribution," and "Worldwide Deployment" came to the same conclusion, that a deployment of Light Water Reactors can only be sustained until 2030. Lets call this the conservative case. Conservative, in that it is based on very conservative estimates of global uranium resources. While far more generous Uranium resources are justifiable, they are by no means certain. A really plausible plan should make conservative assumptions. If generous assumptions do not pan out, then the plan can be altered in to reflect a better than expected resource picture.

The nuclear intensive plan would assume a nuclear build out to 3387 GWe of electrical generating capacity by 2030. This is, in itself an enormous and extremely daunting build out, and indeed suggests that a major revolution in nuclear manufacturing technology will be required. Fortunately many of the components of that revolution are already understood, and none of them represents a serious impediment to technological change. Factory production of reactor construction kits, together with on site labor saving machines, and new materials savings reactor designs can be expected to improve reactor manufacturing, labor, time and materials efficiencies during the next decade, and to be reinforced by a learning curve. Such a large build out will probably require a shift of many reactor manufacturing activities from the final manufacturing site to factories. The recycling of old steam plant locations as nuclear power stations sites, will also save money and time for the buildout.

Thus while ambitious, the 3387 GWe buildout by 2030 is still not impossible, but the goal must be set soon. Both "Intensive Contribution," and "Worldwide Distribution" then looked at the U-Pu fast reactor cycle. By 2030 an enormous amount of reactor grade plutonium will become available. This RGP can be put to use both in the production of nuclear power and in the breeding of more reactor fuel. Doing so would serve as at least a partial solution to what is commonly seen as a major problem for nuclear power, the so called nuclear waste problem. Indeed the reuse of nuclear fuel turns "nuclear waste," into an asset. "Intensive Contribution," argues that given the supply of plutonium for LWRs and fast breeders, a buildout to 9000 GWe by 2050 is possible.

"Worldwide Deployment" looks at a number of added options including burning recycled RGP in LWRs. This delays, perhaps for a hundred years, but does not prevent the eventual draw down of fissionable materials that are tied to a non-breeding nuclear economy. A better use of the RGP is

Thus the transition to some form of nuclear breeding will be inevitable, if a long term commitment to nuclear power becomes a matter of policy.

Fast sodium cooled reactors are often viewed as the preferred method of nuclear breeding, although various Molten Salt Reactor breeding options exit, and include many attractive features that are more than competitive with what liquid sodium cooled breeder reactors such as the Integral Fast Reactor. IFR backers claim higher breeding ratios, but the compatibility of those high breeding ratios with optimal safety has, as of yet to be confirmed.

"Worldwide Deployment" also reviews a gas cooled fast reactor option, but did not like it as well as the sodium cooled concept.

"Worldwide Deployment" foresaw global energy demands for the equivalent of 18 Billion tons of oil by 2050. Even with stockpiling massive amounts of RGP, and using it to start Sodium Cooled Fast Breeder Reactors, "Worldwide Deployment" concludes that there will not be enough fast breeders to meet world energy demand after 2080. Hence, we must turn to Thorium fuel cycle Molten Salt Reactors.

The argument that nuclear power was too expensive, does not seem rational because when the cost of redundancies, new transmission systems, and energy storage systems required by a renewable generated electrical system is factored into the costs of renewable generated electricity, the cost of renewables turns out to be far more expensive than the cost of nuclear generated electricity. If we are confronted with a Sovereign debt crisis, the cost of renewables would be prohibitively expensive, while the cost of advanced nuclear power systems will be low enough to pay for out of current electrical rates. In addition by adopting more advanced nuclear technology, and adopting the thorium fuel cycle, all the objections brought against nuclear power by renewable advocates can be demonstrated to be fallacious. If we want to avoid a climate disaster, we have no choice other than to commit to a massive deployment of nuclear power. Even in the face of a sovereign debt crisis, a massive deployment of LFTRs is possible.

1 comment:

Andrew Jaremko said...

Charles - thank you for this post and it's good to see you back. I absolutely agree with your evaluation. Doing nothing is extremely expensive, but doing the wrong things is even worse. And as Rod Adams is fond of pointing out, the ones who are benefiting are in the fossil fuel part of the energy sector.

I wonder - given the Italian scientists who are on trial for murder for not communicating the science clearly to the public - who can we indict for the ongoing carnage caused by fossil fuels, and specifically coal burning? In a comment to one of nnadir's postings I calculated that over my lifetime, the coal emissions that generate my electricity are responsible for about 2 tenths of a death. I'd like to cut that down by a factor of a million.


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